There are days when Denmark runs on the wind. Days when a 21st-century first-world nation of 5.5 million people has all of its electricity demands met by a clean, safe, nigh-on universally available energy source that nobody will ever need or want to fight a war over and no terrorist will ever menace. On average, 20 per cent of Denmark’s energy is provided by wind, and the companies profiting most from this trend are determined that where Denmark leads, the world will follow.
“Thirty per cent of all newly installed electric power in Europe is wind power,” says Roland Sundén, 54, CEO of LM Glasfiber. “We were pioneers and entrepreneurs. Now we’re an industrial centre.”
We’re at LM’s headquarters, on the outskirts of a small town called Lunderskov, surrounded by LM’s giant blades which rotate on one in three of the world’s wind turbines. Nowhere, however, can they be such a dominant feature of the landscape as they are in this part of Denmark. When coming in to land at the nearest airport of Billund – home of Lego – so many turbines are visible that the landscape resembles an alien planet populated by immense stick figures wearing outsize novelty whirling bow ties.
“Really,” says Sundén, “the biggest problem we have is managing growth. We could double the size of the company in the next two years. Denmark is becoming the Silicon Valley of the wind industry.”
LM started life in 1940 as a furniture manufacturer called Lunderskov Møbelfabrik, possibly because its founders were strapped for anything else to do. Even now, Lunderskov is a one-street, two-bar town. When I ask an innkeeper what attractions might enthral the visitor, he mournfully replies, “We have a pond.”
Today, LM – owned by UK equity fund Doughty Hanson since 2001 – makes nothing but wind-turbine blades and money. In 2005, its pre-tax profits were DKK17m (€2.28m). Its 2006 pre-tax profits soared to DKK221m (€29.65m). Half its total global workforce of 5,200 has been hired in the past two years. LM has 10 factories in eight countries and is building three more; two in the rampantly burgeoning energy markets of India and China. It has a new global office in Amsterdam and will soon relocate the administrative sections of the Lunderskov setup to the slightly brighter lights of nearby Kolding.
The LM staff are evangelical about their jobs for reasons beyond the financial. Sundén, who has worked here for 18 months, smiles and says his four children approve: “They think it’s great that I’m part of the solution.” To objections, especially in the UK where proposed wind turbine developments have met angry responses rooted in allegations of ugliness, he professes bafflement. “I think they’re kind of beautiful,” he says. “When something is good, it usually looks nice, like high-performance cars or aeroplanes.”
When LM’s head of corporate communications, Steen Broust Nielsen, meets me in the complex’s canteen, decorated with abstract paintings bearing faintly Stalinist exhortations (“Reach: Our Journey Towards Excellence”), he answers more prosaic questions. Wind turbines tend to have three blades because it was generally decided that two looks kind of weird, and more can create an annoying flicker of light. They’re the colour they are because of a consensus that non-reflective white is the least obtrusive available (although LM did once supply yellow blades for a German sunflower farmer who wanted an immense representation of his product, and camouflaged ones for a Greek military base).
As for suggestions that the turbines can be oppressively noisy, he offers that they’re quieter than standard background noise such as traffic and getting quieter still as the technology improves. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK says that wind farms on migration routes or roosting sites can be a genuine menace – the 68-turbine farm on the Norwegian island of Smola, they point out, has all but exterminated the local population of white-tailed eagles.
This is a problem of situation, though, not of the technology itself. All the talk at LM is of possibility. Nielsen quotes the ancient Walt Kelly quip: “We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities.” Most onshore turbines in Denmark are privately owned – the generated electricity is sold to utility companies by the landowners who host them. Increasingly, interconnected international power grids will permit Denmark’s privateers to export the electricity.
Last year, LM opened a €3.3m wind tunnel to test the aerodynamics of individual sections of blades. Peter Fuglsang, team leader of the aerodynamic research department, says: “We could have got 90 per cent accuracy with a computer but 10 per cent uncertainty is not acceptable.” Other innovations include metal components in the blade to absorb the wind turbine’s single natural enemy – lightning. Methods of storing wind-produced electricity for use on calm days are improving: in batteries, as hydrogen or by pumped storage – the practice of moving water between reservoirs of different altitudes.
LM may well be doing for the energy source of the future what the region’s other best-known brand did for building blocks. “The wind,” says LM’s understandably optimistic CEO, “is always blowing somewhere.”
Turbine hall of fame
Ten largest markets for wind power (percentage of global total wind power generated, 2006)
Germany 27.8 per cent
USA 15.7 per cent
Spain 15.6 per cent
India 8.4 per cent
Denmark 4.2 per cent
China 3.5 per cent
Italy 2.9 per cent
UK 2.6 per cent
Portugal 2.3 per cent
France 2.1 per cent
The pride of LM’s fleet are the six blades powering the twin turbines of the Beatrice Wind Farm Demonstrator Project, installed in 2006 and 2007, in the Moray Firth near the Beatrice oilfield in Scotland. Each blade weighs 18 tonnes and is 61.5m long – the biggest such blades ever. (For purposes of triumphal comparison, a graphic at LM HQ shows the rotors dwarfing the Statue of Liberty.) The blade tips will travel at around 300km/h, pulling 9Gs. The turbines were commissioned by the oilfield’s owners, Canadian corporation Talisman Energy, which hopes they will meet 70 per cent of the oilfield’s electricity require-ments, and will turn for five years, testing the feasibility of a bigger, permanent wind farm on the site.
The project was also funded by Scottish and Southern Energy, with public-sector money from the EU, the UK Department of Trade & Industry and the Scottish Executive. Scotland aims to have 40 per cent of its electricity needs met by renewable resources by 2020.